Meditations in 1 Timothy: 32: Correcting Elders
1 Tim 5:19,20 Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.
There seem two opposite sets of behaviour that appear in churches in respect of attitudes towards ‘leaders’. The first is to elevate the leader(s) to such a pinnacle of authority and power that never a word dare be spoken against them, even when behaviour is questionable. The second is to see the leader as a lower servant who is up for constant gossiping criticism. Neither is good. Whereas we neither want to elevate our leaders to sainthood nor pull them down to caretaker level, we should maintain a balanced view of those who lead our local churches.
On the one hand we need to recognize they are frail individuals like ourselves who are prone to the same struggles that we have, needing our support and encouragement (gifted as they may be!), as we noted in the previous meditation, but on the other hand that ‘frailty’ of humanity does mean they can get it wrong and fall off the rails. Tragically the history of the Christian Church in the last twenty years is littered with great men who have fallen. The fall usually has to do either with financial irregularities or with illicit relationships; those appear the most common things that have occurred.
Now whereas we are not to go looking and expecting for our leader(s) to fall, there are times when it becomes obvious to one or another that things are not right. How does one deal with this? Does one just gossip the concern around to see if others concur? No! I would suggest that the wise course is first to pray and seek God’s wisdom. If you are sure of your concerns then the next stage, I suggest, it to take them to someone else in the church of maturity or even in some leadership role and share your concern.
Remember Paul’s injunction: “Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.” (v.19) There need to be at least two of you who constitute ‘witnesses’ and a witness knows, doesn’t just ‘think’, they know something is wrong. Now please, realise our aim is not to pull down our leader and so casual or careless spreading of rumors is out!
Even back in the Law of Moses the requirement was for more than one witness: “One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” (Deut 19:15) Jesus established the procedure for dealing with someone who sins against you in the church: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that `every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Mt 18:15-17) The difficulty of course, is to determine what is a sin but in the case of illicit relationships, say, it is quite obvious: it is wrong!
We have suggested a slight variation against this general procedure because what we have talking about is the possible sin of a leader and the relationship of leader to member of the flock is an unequal one and so going on your own to confront him is an unwise approach. One warning: where sexual sin is involved I have observed that the ‘sinner’ almost invariably denies it and even in the most plausible way. Sexual sin always seems to be accompanied by deception. This is why being sure of facts and having another ‘witness’ is essential. Now remember what we said earlier: our intent is not to pull the man down. Our intent must be for his good as well as the good of the church. We are looking for repentance – but there is a further problem. This man, if we are talking about some serious sin as we have been referring to above, cannot continue in his present role. He needs to be dealt with correctly – dealing with whatever wrong it is in the appropriate way. Financial irregularities would involve crime. Child abuse would also involve the authorities. Adultery would not only require an ending of the relationship but would also require marital counseling. There are likely to be ongoing issues to be dealt with.
Paul’s teaching was, “Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.” (v.20) At the very least this means it must not be covered up so that the extent of the sin is seen and is not trivialized. Now so far we have only covered what we might consider serious sins but in one sense all sins are serious. Suppose our leader got angry with a member of the flock and hit them – serious sin! It needs confronting, dealing with publicly with public apology etc. What if the leader just spoke very strongly to a member of the flock. Sin? We are now moving in more difficult areas. If he does it with one, he will do it with another and we, perhaps, have a behavioral or attitudinal issue to deal with. The more one thinks into these issues linked with Paul’s words here, we realise we are moving in difficult waters that need the wisdom of God.